Lighting the NAMI Rainbow
I’ve worked in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) field for 10 years.
Before arriving at NAMI, I worked specifically with and for LGBTQ college students preparing them for the workplace and teaching them about their rights in the workplace. Many people don’t know that in 29 states, LGBTQ people can legally be fired from their job or be denied employment. Visit the LGBTQ Task Force State Non-Discrimination Laws Map to see if your state falls short.
I loved working with LGBTQ college students, non-profit organizations, colleges and universities and corporations. When I found an opportunity to do something a little different, I took a giant leap and landed at NAMI. I was nervous when I arrived at NAMI. I was about to work for and with the experts in mental health. I was partially worried I wouldn’t fit in, but confident enough to hope that my event expertise would make that irrelevant.
I’d been an expert in the LGBTQ community, but I wasn’t an expert in the mental health community. I wasn’t a complete newbie to the mental illness field, however. My partner lives with bipolar disorder and I’ve spent several years constantly learning how to be a supportive family member and understand that it isn’t about finding a solution and that there isn’t always going to be a solution.
I was also a little nervous that by leaving the LGBTQ community, I would become disassociated with my community. Though there are staff members at the NAMI national office who self-identify as part of the LGBTQ community, I felt as though I became a resident expert. I started getting questions from co-workers, including validating gender identity and sexual orientation language on surveys.
I had found the NAMI “GLBT” page on the NAMI website and though it contained a lot of valuable information, it was outdated and needed revision. I seized the opportunity to work with the NAMI Multicultural Action Center (MAC) to revamp the LGBTQ Web content. I knew that as long as I could help build upon LGBTQ resources and programming, I would be able to have my cake and eat it too.
Mental health is such a big part of the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ individuals struggle with social stigma, discrimination, prejudice, denial of civil and human rights, abuse, harassment, victimization, social exclusion and family rejection. People in the LGBTQ community face the stress of coming out and being discriminated against for their sexual orientation and gender identities, which can lead to depression, thoughts of suicide and substance abuse.
I spent hours searching for numerical data, but as usual, found myself getting frustrated at the lack of statistics. Even the National Census does not ask for information on sexual orientation or gender identity. It isn’t that LGBTQ people are ashamed of their identities and orientations, but because of the way that society views the LGBTQ community, it isn’t considered relevant and isn’t asked. How can we as a society expect to convey the importance of providing resources and information to the LGBTQ population, if we as LGBTQ individuals aren’t counted in data collection!?
I wanted to make sure that we added key information to the NAMI LGBTQ Web page about finding an LGBTQ inclusive provider. One of the biggest challenges that LGBTQ individuals face when going to see a provider, is coming out to their provider. It is so important to feel comfortable with your mental health provider, especially youth who aren’t out or cannot come out and for transgender or gender queer or fluid individuals who feel uncomfortable when assumptions are made by their providers.
It was important for me to form relationships with a few organizations that I was already connected with. I worked with the Trevor Project about presenting a workshop at the 2014 and 2015 NAMI National Conventions and started conversations with the Trevor Project about working more closely with NAMI. I worked to form an official partnership in 2015 with the National LGBTQ Task Force and have worked to ensure that information about various programs and outreach efforts are sent to members and organizations within the LGBTQ community.
Someday we will be accounted for, we will get the rights that we deserve and we will get all of the resources that we need. In the meantime, we need to come together and create supportive and safe spaces for the LGBTQ community.